1st March 2011, Village Magazine, Article by John Devitt
The collapse of the Irish economy and collapse of trust in Irish politics has propelled reform up the political agenda. And given that any new government will have so little cash to play with, promises of institutional reform and open government are among the few they may be able to deliver.
Political reform has been seized upon by most parties and candidates – there is barely a candidate not promising ‘change’, ‘accountability’ and greater ‘transparency’. Fine Gael and Labour are pledging to abolish the Seanad and make the government more accountable. Even Fianna Fáil, after blocking reform for the past decade, has got in on the act and all parties have promised to clean up politics.
Certainly the manifestos and policy papers from across the spectrum make for positive reading. However, most of the policies are not new. Transparency International Ireland published a survey of party commitments on open government in advance of the last local and EU parliament elections and the same promises were made then as now. The last programme for government contained clear commitments to protect whistleblowers and ban corporate donations but nothing much happened on either front.
As in 2009, there is generally little commitment to specifics or timeframes for delivery. There has been precious little discussion on how government can prevent the incalculable losses the country has suffered over the past twenty years from fraud and corruption, and scant reference to cleaning up our public contracting system. No commitments have been made to open up public procurement to public scrutiny for instance, or to deal with shady ‘shelf companies’ bidding for future state contracts.
Proposals on political-party finance do not go far enough – with lower caps on donations or thresholds likely to leave the proceeds of golf classics and the identities of the ‘bundlers’ (those responsible for organising whip-arounds) hidden from public attention. On all sides politicians will also avoid giving more powers to the Standards in Public Office Commission to launch investigations into their financial affairs. Similarly, any new government is unlikely to stop the revolving door that allows retiring politicians to walk straight into high-paying roles in the private or semi-state sector. Significantly, the parties’ commitments to controlling the influence of lobbyists also lack teeth. Unless a mandatory and fully public register of lobbyists is introduced, the purported solution will amount to window dressing. Plans for a Canadian-style register without any means to enforce it, would be worse than no register at all.
That said, it would be churlish to simply isolate the shortcomings in the parties’ proposals on open government and reform. All parties (with the continued exception of Fianna Fáil) have pledged to provide blanket guarantees to whistleblowers and most are committed to the strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act. It is also encouraging to note that politicians (and even business leaders) are singing from essentially the same hymn sheet on a range of important reforms that could make government more effective and accountable.
Nevertheless, while such consensus may be useful, it may also lead to less demand for real change. Nominal reform may divert the public’s attention from the need for transformation of our democratic structures and legislation. For example, what demand will there be for meaningful reform of voting procedures in the Dail, if people are distracted by the scrapping of the Seanad? Likewise, who will care if employees and not workers are covered by whistleblower legislation, or if freedom of information is not extended to the Central Bank and the Gardaí provided fees for information are reduced?
If we are to see real change, political parties will need to be held account and need to be held to account to the highest standards possible. There are ample resources for to draw from. Groups like TASC and the academic bloggers on politicalreform.ie have published some excellent analysis on reform and open government that should be on any politician’s reading list. Likewise, Transparency International’s and the Council of Europe’s recommendations on combating cronyism and corruption in Ireland would go a long way to preventing the kind of abuse we have witnessed over the past twenty years.
The parties should also be aware that their promises will be monitored in the future. A group of activists and academics have combined to create a scoring system to mark party pledges and will measure the progress of a new government to implement its election manifesto. Reformcard.com is the first initiative of its kind here and hopefully there will be more like it. If nothing else, it should remind politicians that empty promises won’t go unnoticed.